Dr. Rich Edwards

Breakdown of a Gag, Episode 2: Keaton's Dangerous Stunts

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For the Painfully Funny course, Vince Cellini and I shot an 8 episode web series that will break down some of the famous gags we will be watching in OUCH! A Salute to Slapstick.


 


Next up, a comparison of similar shots of Buster Keaton in ONE WEEK (1920) and STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. (1928).


 


Breakdown of a Gag, Episode 2 will be available to #SlapstickFall Students on Monday, 9/5/16, at 12am Eastern.


 


Go to Weekly Module #2 to view the latest episode, or watch it here: https://vimeo.com/181441052 


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When viewing the clips in the episode, it feels as though Buster Keaton was making precise calculations in his head as to where he was supposed to be positioned when the house prop falls so it doesn't flatten him like a pancake. He was basically a daredevil when it came to stunts in his pictures, and not only do the gags work perfectly, but you can admire him for the many risks he took while on set. Even if he suffered a fractured/broken bone in his body after attempting it, he would come back and do it again.

 

It's no wonder that many stuntmen in the motion picture industry, even today, look back at Buster Keaton for inspiration.

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It's pretty obvious Keaton changed the game when it came to stunts and physical comedy. No more was a slip on a banana peel or a bonk on the head with a piece of wood enough. Now it was about something bigger and more dangerous as we saw with him avoiding falling houses. The ante will be upped even further with Harold Lloyd dangling off high rises and such.

 

I would assume many of the "big time stunts" performed today are an homage to the past, with Keaton in the forefront.

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As I was watching the Buster Keaton clip, I was struck by how difficult and essential it would have been to rehearse the stunt.  I could not detect any markings on the ground that would indicate the exact place for Buster Keaton to stand.  He moved to his right, but it appeared to happen naturally.

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I thought this was a great episode about the discussion of Buster Keaton and the amazing stunts and gags that he had to practice and time for his films. After I saw the clip for One Week (1920), this is a dangerous stunt that had to be timed and Keaton had to be at a specific location on the ground when that one frame of the facade was falling on top of him where the window frame would meet him head on. In Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), just as Richard and Vince just discussed he had to up the ante by using a similar stunt but this time, using the front of a house that weighed two tons and stand on a mark that would match where the window frame would fall on top of him. You have to remember that Keaton wouldn't risk his life for providing his own stunts, he was a very athletic man in his time and he knew the level of handling his own material since he would take it very seriously no matter what the danger level is. In my opinion, he was more than an innovator of slapstick comedy, he could be thought of as the earliest movie daredevil.

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Coney Island - Great sight gags and slapstick. Minimal story, but you know that in Roscoe's shorts going in. He acknowledge's the camera and actually has the camera 's line of sight move up as he's changing his clothes. Very inventive and, of course, he is letting the audience know that he is letting them in on the jokes.


Al St. John is hard to take, as he is really "over the top", but watching Buster Keaton learn his craft and take spectacular falls is amazing. Also, Buster is showing emotions in this film.That will soon change.


Very amusing comedy of a park that, until a few years ago, no longer existed.


What I find most interesting is that Keaton, once away from Roscoe, had storylines in his films. I believe that this makes the slapstick funnier, as it ties into the story and does not necessarily "stop" the story, but enhances it.


Listening to this week's lecture is interesting to see how Keaton made a great situation even more breathtaking as the house is large and the window even smaller. The joke is further enhanced by Buster's reaction (delayed, of course), in that he takes a few seconds to realize that he has just escaped death. Also, the point of view shot of the man jumping onto the bed establishes the height from another perspective, which for me, just makes the end result even more terrifying and funny.


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The thing I loved the most about this episode was to see the evolution of the gag from the first clip to the second clip. I will go back in time a bit to draw a parallelism. I've seen dozens of Mélies shorts from the start of the century and, perhaps due to his background as a magician and theater performer, his shorts play a lot on that (magic, etc.) And as you see the progression of his shorts from 1890s to early 1900s, you see how he "repeated" some gags, while trying to raise the stakes or up the ante.

 

The same can be said here about Keaton's two clips. You see how he takes the same idea, inserts it into a new film, but upping the ante with, like Cellini and Edwards said, a bigger wall and a smaller window. It shows how through the years they start developing new ideas, but still go on repeating similar gags and stunts that people like.

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I have never sat down to watch a Buster Keaton movie before, but after watching today's episode, I'm wanting to watch more. It absolutely blows my mind how much risk he puts into getting a laugh. The fact that Keaton had only about one foot of clearance before he could have had some serious injury is unbelievable. Was there a small marker placed on the ground that would give him an idea of where to stand before the facades fell?

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ONE WEEK is one of my favorite of Keaton's two-reel comedies. In fact, even though Keaton's features are terrific, you can't beat the two-reelers for sheer pleasure and laughs. I generally like comedy that is more narrative driven, but Keaton managed to seduce me even when his films were mostly a series of gags strung together. He was brilliant.

 

It is informative to see how even the most innovative used gags over and over. As long as they worked with the audience, and one could make them better each time, why not?

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The thing I always liked about Keaton's productions was that even as a vaudevillian he embraced the new media and set up gags like this one that never could have graced a stage on the Orpheum Circuit.

 

Compare the silent Steamboat Bill, Jr to the "talkie" Animal Crackers with the Marx Brothers.  The early Marx Bros films for Paramount were essentially their stage shows filmed with a static camera.

 

I think that when sound came in a lot of the dialogue intensive gags from vaudeville and burlesque took the place of physical performances like Keaton's and Chaplin's. 

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Love em both! Even though the latter shot is more dangerous it's remarkable in both. 8 years?! Holy Hannah! Great stuff though and he earned the rank as "best" or "most memorable" shot in all history. Amazing!

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I just want to say that I LOVE the SportsCenter format! Besides looking and sounding great, it serves to emphasize the physical, athletic aspects of great slapstick. I love how you guys can analyze the sight gag the way you analyze a great sports play. I love how impressed Cellini is.

 

Maybe you should have filmed the Noir course lectures in a detective's office in the basement of the Los Angeles City Hall. The last door on the right.

 

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ONE WEEK is one of my favorite of Keaton's two-reel comedies. In fact, even though Keaton's features are terrific, you can't beat the two-reelers for sheer pleasure and laughs. I generally like comedy that is more narrative driven, but Keaton managed to seduce me even when his films were mostly a series of gags strung together. He was brilliant.

 

It is informative to see how even the most innovative used gags over and over. As long as they worked with the audience, and one could make them better each time, why not?

 

I can't decide if my favorite Keaton short is this one or Cops. Both are great.

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I am amazed that buster keaton did all his own stunts I never realized that before and I will look foreward to seeing that movie. I watched  Buster Keaton in 'The General' yesterday where his partner was a train engine.

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It is interesting to see the danger involved.  I guess it is something I took for granted when watching these films.  The training and preparation had to be very precise to avoid accidents.  I am enjoying hearing the explantions of the clips.

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Slapstick was referred as violent comedy as well as willful and intense pain. In 1915 By The Sea with Chaplin, he throws a peel of banana on the ground and then trips on it. Then again when he interrupts the marriage proposal. His actions set the setting up so well, and the immense amount of detail and thought to pull these acts off so well truly amazes me.

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Buster Keaton pushed the slapstick violence to the edge! He did stunts that at any moment could have killed him. The audience cringed hoping in their heart's that he wouldn't be killed, and thrilled and relieved to see him recover without a scratch. Like today the theatre fans wanted violence and fear, and Buster Keaton satisfied in every way. Mr.Keaton set the bar high for stunt people for all time. Thank you for your movies you were sensational.

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I enjoyed the little aside where Cellini and Dr. Edwards discussed how Keaton got the name “Buster”.  I remember reading how Keaton’s father, Joe, would toss him around the stage as part of the family’s vaudeville act.  His mother, Myra, even sewed a suitcase handle into the back of young Keaton’s clothing so that the father could get a better grip on him.  As I recall, the broken nose is supposed to have occurred one day when Joe Keaton tossed his young (three or four years old) son at a heckler in the first row.  I’m thinking that story is probably apocryphal, but who knows.  As an adult, Keaton always insisted that he was never abused as a child and that the family’s act was always professionally done with very little actual danger to himself.  In New York state, the Gerry Society (for the prevention of cruelty to children) might have disagreed with that.  They kept a close watch on children appearing in stage acts.  The Keaton family probably would have agreed with Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford, two child actors both of whom regarded the Gerry Society people as well-meaning do-gooders who were messing with their families’ ability to make a living.

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As I was watching the Buster Keaton clip, I was struck by how difficult and essential it would have been to rehearse the stunt.  I could not detect any markings on the ground that would indicate the exact place for Buster Keaton to stand.  He moved to his right, but it appeared to happen naturally.

 

Actually, the stunt was not rehearsed per se. The set weighed over 2 tons and was a one-shot deal. The cameraman refused to watch, he closed his eyes but kept the camera going the whole time. It's a testimony to Buster's attention to detail and his confidence in the structure of his gag as well as the abilities of his crew in constructing the house front. It had to be the "real thing" in order to fall completely flat and not warp.

 

And contrary to the instructor's comment about there being a foot of clearance, there were only 2" on either side of Buster's shoulders according to Keaton himself. There was a nail in the ground at the precise spot he needed to stand.

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Buster Keaton's films are always a joy to watch and I am happy to say I have seen "One Week" a few times in a movie theatre either with live organ accompaniment or with the Alloy Orchestra, the latter highly recommended.

 

The audience would let out audible gasps at the scenes when the façade would fall and be amazed at the comedic timing of how the window opening would allow Keaton to escape unharmed.

 

His stone face expressions always amazed me too, and I have found myself imitating his expressions at times when stuff that doesn't go right for me occurs.

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Actually, the stunt was not rehearsed per se. The set weighed over 2 tons and was a one-shot deal. The cameraman refused to watch, he closed his eyes but kept the camera going the whole time. It's a testimony to Buster's attention to detail and his confidence in the structure of his gag as well as the abilities of his crew in constructing the house front. It had to be the "real thing" in order to fall completely flat and not warp.

 

And contrary to the instructor's comment about there being a foot of clearance, there were only 2" on either side of Buster's shoulders according to Keaton himself. There was a nail in the ground at the precise spot he needed to stand.

Even analyzing it scares the crap out of me...

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I feel that in this discussion of the breakdown of the gag something may be missing.  That is the reaction of the "victim" to the injury.  I think this may be important in creating the humor.  And it may also be the device for instantly  making clear the person was not hurt.  Similarly in breaking down the gag the set up is also very important.  For example, in the hose film it is so important that he spends time getting closer and closer to the hose.  Probably everyone knows what is about to happen. And I think it is also important that the relative status of the characters is made clear.   I love slap stick but  TV shows I've seen on the subject often just show a series of gags.  But the context is missing.  These are some random thoughts that I wish I could express more concisely and articulately.

Charlie

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Buster Keaton worked with anything he could use to make it hilarious and he achieved that. From watching both clips it's clear that if something went wrong, it could have hurt him, but he took that chance. That kept the audience always watching to see what he would do next and knowing it would add to the comedy. He had a great talent for silent films and I admire him for doing all his stunts himself.

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I can definitely see why these clips of Buster Keaton and his stunts are some to the best in cinematic history. Clearly there is a great risk in him doing these dangerous stunts but it makes it that much better for the viewing audience. I surely am looking forward to seeing these to films this month. If anyone wants to enjoy more of Buster Keaton and his influence in other movies and on other actors I suggest you check out Benny and Joon starring Johnny Depp. Johnny Depp performs a scene imitating Buster Keaton that I am fairly sure would make Buster Keaton very proud.

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I can't help but think that Keaton had a, "been there, done that" attitude about many of the more common slapstick gags because of his vaudeville background. Not in an arrogant way, simply as an innovator and daredevil. I read that he actually broke his neck in the water tower scene in Sherlock Jr. What did he do? He kept on filming. He didn't even know for quite some time he had actually injured himself. He never refused a stunt, stunt doubled for himself and for other actors. He was truly one in a million.

 

Something I thought of seeing the two gags together, the elevation of the risk doesn't actually increase the danger. But the craft in the buildup of the gag makes it seem so plus making it that much more satisfying. It now flows seamlessly into the narrative. Two inches or twelve.. . Yikes! Nerves of steel. This is the greatest scene in early comedy bar none. In my opinion, in all of comedy. Keaton is King.

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